(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)


With Dichtoefeningen, Guido Gezelle made his literary debut. This collection contains the first public announcement of his literary-patriotic goal—to create a medieval Catholic and Flemish poetic program. In “Aanroeping” (“Invocation”), he establishes that its sources of inspiration are to be Christ, Mary, and nature. Its purpose is to render praise through the Flemish idiom, and the poet’s role is to convert into verbal music and painting the sounds and sights nature supplies. In “Principium a Jesu” (“Beginning in Jesus”), Gezelle amplifies his views of inspiration by emphasizing that the poet has a greater responsibility than merely to paint and echo nature’s sights and sounds: He also has the ethical obligation to reflect Christ in his lines in order thereby to instill Christian praise. To do so, Gezelle believed that the poet himself must first be sanctified through grace so that he might rightfully return nature’s gifts to their source. Through the Christian muse, the poet can thus transform his own verbal music into Christian song. Poetry in this sense becomes a concomitant of grace as the poet cooperates with inspirational grace to return his poetic product to its ultimate source, Christ.

The earliest poems in Dichtoefeningen are essentially displays of the poet’s own virtuosity as he chimes in his lines nature’s sounds and vividly depicts nature’s sights. Examples are “Boodchap van de vogels” (“Message from the Birds”) and “Pachthofschildering” (“Farmyard Sketches”). The later poems turn these poetic exercises into spiritual exercises regarding the lessons residing in nature—lessons that lead the poet into the self and, hence, to a discovery of God. The poem “Het schrijverke” (“The Water Strider”) is a meditation on an insect. The poet is puzzled by what the bug writes on the water as it skids along its surface. The bug teaches the lesson that it writes the name of God. The intellectual knowledge the poet gains from the bug’s actions provides the basis for the experiential knowledge he acquires in “O ’t ruisen van het ranke riet” (“Oh, the Rustling of the Slender Reed”). Here, the poet learns not only to intuit the meaning of the reed’s “sad song” as the “sweet song” heard by God but also to hear his own sad pleas echoed in the rueful rustling of the reed. This self-identification with nature leads to further self-discovery in “De waterspegel” (“The Water Speculum”), where the poet sees reflected in creation not only his own image but also that of God, its “wonderous Artist.” In “Binst het stille van de nacht” (“In the Quietness of Night”), he recognizes that, unlike the natural phenomena surrounding him, the poet himself assumes a very special place in creation, for he must do more than learn from, identify with, and admire nature and its Creator. The poet must also through his own verbal music transmit the spirit of God. The poem “Aan de leeuwerk in de lucht” (“To the Skylark in the Air”) is the poetical and spiritual culmination of Dichtoefeningen. The poet no longer is the medium through which nature flows back to its original source, God; here, he transcends nature as his ecstatic poetic flight surpasses that of the lark. Trough his ascent, the poet, unlike the lark, can ultimately bathe in God’s peace.

Gedichten, gezangen en gebeden

Gedichten, gezangen en gebeden is a bittersweet collection containing poems about the ecstasies of Gezelle’s triumphs and the agonies of his sadness experienced primarily during his Roulers years. It is the most personal of his collections, for the first time introducing the themes of sin, guilt, and friendship. In a significant way, this collection presents both the public and private voices of the poet-priest on the various meanings of the Cross. A number of these poems celebrate the Eucharist. Some of these follow the tripartite division of Ignatian meditational exercises, in which the memory prompts the imagination to see, the intellect analyzes what the imagination sees, and the will moves the affections to respond to God.

In “Bezoek aan het Allerheiligste” (“Visiting the Holy of Holies”), for example, as the persona partakes of the Eucharist, he pictures God’s presence in Rome, Jerusalem, and Flanders. The imagination sees God descending everywhere, which prompts his intellect to ask why God would leave His angels to dwell here below. The answer, however, lies beyond the persona’s grasp and only emphasizes the limitations of man’s intellect. This in turn leads his will to adoration, to plead for God’s acceptance, and to resolve to become more worthy of God’s grace. While the persona in this poem is driven to his knees, in another meditation poem on the Eucharist, “Wie zijt gij” (“Who Art Thou”), he is moved to look up at the skies, to trace God in the stars, and to lift himself in songs and joy.

Others of the public poems were commissioned by Gezelle’s bishop for the edification of Flemish-speaking people. The most moving of these are the Jesu poems, most notably “Jesu waar’t de mens gegeven” (“Jesus, Were It Giv’n to Man”), “Jesu,” and “Jesu liefste Jesu mijn” (“Jesu, Dearest Jesu Mine”). Though inspired by Gezelle’s own sense of inadequacy, guilt, and shame, these poems are nevertheless public in intent. In them, as J. J. M. Westenbroek points out in Van het leven naar het boek (1967), the poet speaks foremost as the public priest, seeking to move others to pray. All of them have a two-part structure, the first part usually describing how sinful man resists God’s grace, the second part depicting Christ as the patient wooer of ungrateful man. Strongly Christ-centered prayers, they are intended to move man to reflect on his guilt and sin in order to sue for grace. The soul-searching and penitent response these poems elicit belong to the essence of prayer.

The poetical highlights of Gedichten, gezangen en gebeden, according to Westenbroek, are three poems addressed to Gezelle’s closest friend, Eugeen van Oye. They trace the various stages of that friendship between 1858 and 1859, when van Oye was wavering about his future vocation and Gezelle fervently tried to retain him for the priesthood. In “Een bonke kersen kind” (“A Bunch of Cherries, Child”), Gezelle uses the cherry cluster as a symbol in the opening and closing frame of the poem. The cluster of ripened cherries evokes an outburst of sensual joy at the beauties of creation as shared with the friend, but it also serves as a warning that such joys must not serve as selfish delights, but should be returned with thanks to their source. The temptation alluded to pertains to giving in to sensual pleasures as ends in themselves. In “Rammentati” (“Remember”), written after van Oye’s decision to forego the priesthood, the earlier joy is replaced by the poet’s fears and deep concern about the boy’s spiritual welfare. The poem is a series of warnings to “remember” that the secular world is filled with much greater temptations than the sensual delights afforded by nature. Though not pressing van Oye to forego his secular ambitions, Gezelle instead seeks to fortify him for his journey into secular life by giving him concerned advice so that he might ultimately reach his heavenly home. In “Ik mis u” (“I Miss Thee”), written after van Oye had left the college, the poet pours out his grief over the boy’s absence. A retrospective poem, it recalls various moments when van Oye was still one of his protégés. The poet misses his voice amid the chapel choristers and the poems he used to bring to his room, but most of all at the altar rail when the poet-priest used to feed him with Christ. Whereas “Remember” ended with warnings, this poem ends with uncomfortable questions: whether van Oye will remain steadfast in the faith, and whether Gezelle will ever see him again, even after death.

In the final analysis, nearly all of the contents of Gedichten, gezangen en gebeden are focused on the Cross, whether expressed as devotion to the Sacrament, the poet’s own suffering in taking up Christ’s Cross,...

(The entire section is 3370 words.)